Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,* 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
So today, our Gospel reading pitches into the controversial and painful subject of divorce – a nice, easy subject for a Sunday evening.
I suppose, in one sense, it’s good to know that Divorce has been an issue going right back – back to the time of Jesus, certainly, but it is clear from Jesus’ response, that it goes back even to the time of Moses.
And it’s always been a difficult issue. That’s why the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a question about it. Stick up for marriage and you look as though you’re being judgmental and hard-hearted towards those who have been through the deep trauma of marital breakup. Play down divorce, and you look as though you’re playing around with family life and being untrue to God’s law. You couldn’t win then, and you can’t win now.
And I suppose the first thing to say is that marriage is not an easy thing. One of my regular jokes at weddings is to start by saying that, sadly these days, almost 40% of marriages end in divorce, but then the other 60% end in death! So, statistically, marriage is a very dangerous thing.
And anyone who has been married for any length of time will know that marriage is incredibly tough at times. Most of you will know that my own marriage endured a brief period of separation, some 10 years ago, when it looked likely to come to an end. Nearly all marriages come close to breaking up at some point and very often, the outcome of such situations hangs by a thread, so none of us can sit in judgment over those whose marriages do break up and that’s important to say at the outset, as we come to look at Jesus’ teaching on this.
And, as always with the Bible’s teaching, it is important to understand this teaching in context. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem to establish his kingdom. And to the crowds that followed, that meant seizing the crown from both Caesar and his puppet, King Herod. And here you need to know a little history.
The reason Jesus is being asked about divorce here is that his journey to Jerusalem, along the Jordan Valley, has just reached the part of the river Jordan where John the Baptist conducted his ministry. And just a year or so before, John the Baptist had got himself into seriously hot water by speaking out against the marital arrangements of the king, Herod Antipas, whose wife, Herodias, had divorced Herod’s brother, Philip to marry Philip’s brother Herod instead.
John the Baptist had proclaimed that this new marriage to Herod was unlawful and for his trouble, Herodias had him beheaded. So the Pharisees knew that this was a toxic question likely to get Jesus into the same trouble and that’s why they ask it.
So Jesus takes up his usual tack of answering a question with a question. When the Pharisees ask him whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus asks them what Moses says about it. So when Jesus then goes on to quote Genesis (popularly believed to have been written by Moses), he is very cleverly avoiding making a personal pronouncement on the subject. Instead, he lets Moses do the talking.
Yet, he could not be more clear on the point: when a man and woman become joined in marriage, the two become one. God joins them together. And that which God has joined together, no-one should separate.
That much is clearly stated, but Jesus is just quoting Moses. They can’t catch him out there. But he does add something of his own, something directed not just at Herod and Herodias, but at all of us. He recognises the practical necessity of divorce, but he says that it was “because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you.”
What is he saying there? Well, firstly, he is saying that God recognises the reality of divorce. That marriage is a high ideal, the highest of ideals, frankly too difficult for human beings. Even those who manage to avoid divorce do not live up to the full ideal of what marriage means. That’s why in Matthew’s Gospel he says that if we even look lustfully at another man or woman when we are married, we commit adultery in our hearts. We all fail! Marriage is deliberately too high an ideal for human beings and God is able to deal with it when we fail. On the one hand he holds on to the ideal as something terribly important, sacred in fact. And on the other hand he holds out an understanding hand to human beings who fail to live up to the ideal, whether it’s the painful business of divorce, or the painful business of staying together through desperately tough times. God can hold on to the ideal, but still have compassion on us when we fail to live up to it.
But secondly, Jesus is saying that the problem is our hardness of heart. And by implication he is saying that his kingdom has something to do with addressing that hardness of heart. It is not just about deposing a rotten ruler and doing a better job. It is about ruling over our hearts with a better way of living and a better way of being.
And marriage is very important in that regard. Firstly, because marriage has always been about the protection of the vulnerable. It’s why Jesus’ teaching on divorce is followed immediately by his care for the little children. In Christian spirituality, celibacy has always been the norm, following the example of Jesus himself, but marriage is a sacred relationship set aside for the rearing of children and for the protection of family life. The very word ‘matrimony’ means ‘defence of the mother.’ It is about defending children, but also (in Jesus’ culture at least) defending women. Women were terribly vulnerable throughout most of history – and arguably still are today for different reasons – and marriage was never about us getting what we want, but was intended to defend the vulnerable. And that, as a principle, is still the Christian understanding of marriage today. It’s why, for example, I personally would always support a person leaving an abusive marriage, because that is the clearest possible travesty of God’s intended use of marriage to protect the vulnerable.
But marriage is also important in another regard, because it mirrors the life of love that God calls us to live. The Christian faith is founded on an understanding of God as a relationship of perfect love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A love so selfless, so passionate and so perfect that it unites them utterly. So though they be three persons, we can only speak of them being one God. Because that’s what true love does. And the Bible tells us that we were made in the image of that God, designed to live in that relationship of love, returning it perfectly and being sustained by it eternally. But through sin, we have marred that image in us, we have become incapable of either receiving that love or returning it. Our hearts have grown hard. And as a result, we are not living, but dying.
The true purpose behind Jesus’ kingship is to restore us to that relationship again. To forgive us the sin that drove our hearts towards stony death; to take upon himself the consequences of our indifference, our inability even to recognise love when it stares us in the face; and to propose to us all over again. He offers to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, to reactivate God’s true image within us, so that we can learn to be truly loving beings once more, focussed not on our own need to be loved, but our need to be loving.
And marriage has an important role within that. The reason why marriage is such a high ideal, too difficult for human beings, is not that God likes to test us with impossible tasks, it’s that our healing is dependent on us being able to bridge the gap from the stony-hearted, broken people we are now and the restored, healed and loving people God made us to be. God recognises, of course, that we might fail on the way, but ultimately the only course for our healing is for us to learn to love in a committed, life-long relationship, a life of continual forgiveness, a life of continual sacrifice, putting our loved one first, and a life of learning also how to receive love, to allow hearts to be reached by another, to be served by another and to be cared for.
For that is the nature of God’s kingdom. Ultimately the kingdom of heaven is not about disembodied bliss. It is about being restored to the perfect loving relationship that created us, that made us in its own image that intended us also to live like that. And that applies to each of us, whether we are married or not, whether our marriages have been wonderfully happy or have encountered trauma on the way. We can only receive the kingdom of this God, when are able once again to love with simplicity of heart, to receive it, in short, like a little child, vulnerable, trusting and unconditionally loving. And we practice that not only within our marriages, but within our church community too, for each of us has been joined together by Jesus’s love for us. We, though we are many, are to be deeply one, as God is also three, yet one. We belong to each other profoundly. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Amen.
Preached: – Great Strickland 6 October 2018